Over the past decade, stories of sexual abuse and battery, as well as economic exploitation and discrimination, have led refugee officials to regard women as the newest class of asylum seekers who require special attention.
Today, 75 per cent of the world's 15 million refugees are women and children, including a large number of single mothers with several children. Women may arrive, in resettlement camps suffering from extreme emotional trauma due to rape by sea pirates or border guards, as well as the loss of husbands and loved ones during their flight to safety.
As refugees, they must undertake the task of feeding and caring for their children as well as themselves. Since many refugee women are illiterate, unskilled and destitute, they face even greater hurdles than men in seeking gainful employment.
"The situation of refugee women is extremely complex", said Ann Brazeau, Senior Coordinator for Refugee Women for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in a recent interview. "Once these women become refugees, they lose the protection they had as citizens. Before, in the social sense, they were protected by their communities. But that social protection may breake down once they cross the border."
At the same time, she added: "It's important that we regard women as capable of making decisions on their own behalf and not as victims who are dependent in that sense. That's the kind of thinking we try to promote in our programmes."
In the lingo of refugee work, the need to offer protection to refugee women while promoting self-sufficiency is termed "gender parity". In a nutshell, it means integrating women in every step of the asylum process, while taking concrete steps to lessen the threat and impact of violence. It also means educating and training government and agency officials to become more sensitive to the needs and vulnerabilities of refugee women.
"When you talk about integration, you have to look at the traditional role women play, as caretakers, as the ones in charge of food production and water, etcetera", explained Ms. Brazeau. "If you don't have women involved in food distribution, for example, you'll end up having a potentially exploitative situation", she added. "If you don't design programmes that take the role of women into account as well as their needs, you'll end up having a negative impact on women instead of a positive one."
Such thinking is at the heart of current UNHCR policy towards refugee women, in itself the product of years of refining an approach to improve their plight. A major effort to focus on the status of refugee women occurred in 1985, when the Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women was adopted at the International Conference on Women in Kenya. There, UN and non-governmental agencies met with local women's groups and refugee women to discuss a global plan to provide international protection against violence for refugee women.
In 1987, the UNHCR Executive Committee highlighted the need for international guidelines to improve the protection of refugee women and called for a-greater commitment by UN Member States to increase the participation of women refugees in all areas that affected them.
By then, it was already clear to officials that the special needs of women were still being neglected in the areas of education, health, physical safety, social services, skills training, employment and incomegenerating projects.
The needs of long-term refugees, as well as displaced women, also require special attention. …